This past weekend we took a long weekend off work and camped in Crested Butte for a few days. The leaves were just barely beginning to change, and while the nights were a little chilly, the days gave us some beautiful hiking weather. We specifically chose Crested Butte as a throwback trip.
In 2015, I took Derek to Crested Butte on a summer vacation where we hiked and went off-roading in the mountains. After experiencing summer in Colorado for himself, Derek agreed that we should move to Colorado. We saved up for a couple years, and now we live here full time! Derek’s birthday is in September and for his birthday he wanted to revisit the places that originally convinced him to make this dream come true. So we went camping in Crested Butte and went to places that we hadn’t been before (like Three Lakes Trail), and also some places that we had visited a few years back.
One thing we knew we wanted to see the historic Crystal Mill hike via Schofield Pass. We hadn’t been there before, but we had seen so many pictures of it that we knew we had to make it happen. You can hike there from Crested Butte, which was our first choice since that’s where we were staying. You can also get to Crystal Mill from the town of Marble – if you’re coming from that direction then see below.
We camped at a campground along CR 317 outside of Crested Butte. If you continue down the road, you will drive through the historic town of Gothic and end up at a big yellow sign that basically says serious off-roading vehicles only past this point. Park there, unless you have a serious off-roading vehicle, in which case you can drive all the way to the Mill. Keep in mind that it’s a very narrow, extremely rocky road with steep cliffs and it should only be attempted by experience off-roaders who are properly equipped. We do not fall into that category so we parked at this point and continued on foot.
Schofield Pass From Crested Butte
Once parked, the beginning of the trail almost immediately requires a stream crossing. We were able to using hiking poles for balance and hop across some taller rocks, but if the flow were any higher, I would imagine you would have to take shoes off and roll your pants up. As you’re crossing the stream, take a look to the right and you’ll find a nice waterfall.
Pro Tip: right before the first stream crossing, you can turn left and follow a social trail to a beautiful stair-stepped waterfall. It’s only about 50 yards from the trail, so you aren’t committing to a long side trip but it’s a great start to the hike.
In less than a mile, you’ll find yourself at a second stream crossing. This one we had to take off our boots and roll our pants up in order to cross. The water felt like it was hardly warmer than ice itself, and was borderline painful to walk through. This is understandable since it’s fresh snow melt, but be prepared that it feels like a million little prickly needles poking into your feet. It was actually our first stream crossing in Colorado, so there was a certain excitement about completing it twice (you gotta do it again on the way back!). Luckily, these are the only two stream crossings on the trail and from here you can continue on as normal.
Something that’s different about this trail is that the first half is the downhill part. I find that most hikes in Colorado begin with an uphill portion so you get to do the harder part first, but this hike to Crystal Mill is the opposite. With 1,417 feet in elevation gain, you start the hike with losing that elevation first before gaining it on the way back up.
With that in mind, make sure you are giving yourself plenty of time to make the trek back uphill, as this portion of any trail always takes longer. You’ll also want to give yourself extra time to spend at the mill – this is where we ate lunch before heading back uphill.
Anyway, from the second stream crossing, you begin the downhill portion of the hike. While Crystal Mill is the focal point of the hike, one of the best parts is this section of the hike: you follow a cascading waterfall downhill for what feels like multiple miles. From small falls to large ones that have carved a swimming hole into the rock, this really long waterfall is sure to delight. Pictures really don’t do it justice, and it’s truly a beautiful thing to follow it for so long.
Schofield Pass Road
This whole trail follows the off-road route that’s alluded to on the sign mentioned above. Normally hiking on a road bugs me (why hike on a road when you can be on trail?) but this one didn’t. The road is so rocky and narrow, it doesn’t really feel like a road. I’m sure in peak season you’ll run into more vehicles, but when we visited in off-season, we only saw 2 vehicles during the whole 9 miles. It doesn’t really feel like a road until the last half mile or so, when you start to get closer to the old town of Crystal City and the mill, which is located on the outskirts of the historic town.
Crystal Mill Hike
Next, you’ll walk through Crystal, CO, an old ghost town on the upper Crystal River in White River National Forest. The town was a mining camp established in 1881 and it was bustling until it was abandoned by 1917. Many of the buildings still stand and there are actually a few part-time residents that live there in the summer. It’s worth the time to stop and observe these old buildings, which are made out of hand-hewn logs and rustic log cabin chinking.
Continue through town and in about another 50 yards, you’ll see the viewpoint for Crystal Mill. It’s fenced off, and you have to pay a fee to go down to the water. The mill was built in 1892 as a wooden powerhouse, although it is more correctly referred to as a compressor station, where a horizontal wheel was used to drive an air compressor. The compressed air was then used to power other machinery and tools. Seeing it perched on the rocky outcrop, it looks like a miracle it’s still standing. You can see where some modern cables and wood have been added for stabilization, but it still looks like it could fall over and into the gorgeous blue water below at any moment.
You can see the mill is surrounded by Aspen trees, which is why the next time we visited involved fall colors. It’s beautiful year around, but fall colors are one of my favorite parts of Colorado so I’m sure it’s even more beautiful surrounded by yellow Aspens. After eating lunch at the mill viewpoint (we were the only ones there too so we had the place to ourselves), we started the trek back uphill. We would recommend having proper hiking gear (as you always should!) because this trail is especially rocky. Hiking boots with a rock plate will save your feet from miles and miles of misery. I used hiking poles but Derek didn’t, so that part is personal preference. I think they were especially helpful for balance during the stream crossings. Most of the trail is exposed, so make sure you carry a rain jacket and sun protection.
Marble to Crystal Mill Hike
If you want to get to Crystal Mill from the town of Marble, it’s accessible by vehicle or you can hike it on foot if you don’t have the right setup. It would be a fun activity to rent Jeeps or take a Jeep tour from a local company that will also take you through Lead King Basin, but you can definitely hike or drive your own 4×4 vehicle as well.
If you’re hiking, know that it’s at least 3.6 miles one way, so you should pack all the day hiking essentials and plan on spending a majority of the day hiking. Start early and plan on being back by early afternoon so you don’t get caught in any afternoon storms, which are frequent when hiking in the Colorado mountains.
If you’re choosing to drive this route, it’s possible in something like a Jeep or a 4Runner (we did it in a 2014 Trail Edition 4Runner). The dirt road is very narrow and has very few turnouts, making it difficult to pass vehicles coming from the other direction. For this reason, we started the drive super early in the morning, were the first ones at the mill, and had returned to town before most people were even heading to the trailhead.
Our Final Thoughts
We very quickly realized that the Crystal Mill hike takes the top spot on our list of favorite hikes in Colorado we’ve done so far. The stream crossings, the forever-long cascading waterfall, seeing the old ghost town of Crystal, and to top it all off with the extremely picturesque Crystal Mill, there’s no arguing that this is a truly amazing experience. We really recommend this hike to anyone who’s going to be in Crested Butte (or even Marble on the other side).
P.S. – AllTrails lists this hike as 6.3 miles, but my GPS said 8 miles from parking to the mill and back.